Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Right Actions and Moral Dilemmas

The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.

Good desires, in turn, are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. For an account of how desires can be evaluated, and the sense in which agents can have motivating reasons to promote and inhibit desires, please see A Harmony of Desires

I am writing a series of posts to show how these propositions explain a number of the elements that we find in this institution we know as 'morality'. In this post, I focus on moral dilemmas.

Moral dilemmas are situations where, no matter what option the agent chooses, it is a "wrong action". He must do something that he ought not to do.

A classic example of a moral dilemma involves Sophie's Choice. As the story goes, a Nazi soldier gave Sophie a choice. She could choose which of her children he was going to kill. If she did not choose one, he would kill both of them.

A modified version of this says that Sophie herself must kill one of her two children, or the Nazi guard will kill both of them.

We may have an evolved disposition to care for our children. However, a cursory glance at the news each day tells us that this desire is not naturally so widespread and so strong as we have reason to want it to be. In order to strengthen this set of desires above and beyond what nature provides, we add a layer of moral duty to it. We use praise and condemnation to augment what nature has provided us.

This moral component is what makes Sophie’s Choice a moral dilemma, as opposed to ‘merely’ a painful choice having no moral component.

Act-utilitarian theories have trouble with moral dilemmas. On an act utilitarian theory, Sophie should just kill the child that she thinks will provide the least benefit to society and be done with it. It would be better if Sophie could joyfully kill one of the children because, then, overall utility would be highest. The more Sophie enjoys killing the one child, the more overall utility there will be, and the better the action.

The desire utilitarian account of moral dilemmas rests on the fact that the desires we have reason to promote has a lot to do with the types of situations people encounter every day. The degree to which a desire tends to fulfill other desires is dependent in part on how often that desire has a role to play in real-world decision making.

A moral dilemma exists when desires that we have reason to strongly encourage people to have in virtue of day-to-day living comes into conflict with another desire that we have reason to strongly encourage people to have in some rare circumstance, such as Sophie’s Choice.

It is relevant, when considering a desire’s tendency to fulfill other desires, to note how often it will come into effect. A desire for the welfare of one’s children is a desire that be expected to effect a large number of every day actions. And it is a desire that we have reason to make, through social forces, significantly stronger than nature seems to allow by default,

Furthermore, desires are persistent entities, We have no capacity to turn a desire on and off like a light. If it is active at one time, it will remain active, even as the situation changes and the desire ceases to motivate action that tends to fulfill the desires of others.

On the other hand, the state of being in a position where one has to decide which child to kill (or which child to tell somebody else to kill) is a state that should never occur – or occur quite rarely. It is not an every-day circumstances that we must guard against in deciding which desires to promote and which desires to inhibit.

So, desires that we have many and strong reasons to promote due to every-day concerns become desires that lead to moral dilemmas in extraordinary and unusual circumstances.


Anonymous said...

"Furthermore, desires are persistent entities, We have no capacity to turn a desire on and off like a light. If it is active at one time, it will remain active, even as the situation changes..."


Could you expand on this? For example, if I want to cross a frozen lake but fear that the ice is too thin I would stay on the shore as I have a desire not to drown in icy cold water and that desire is stronger than my desire to cross the lake. Now if I saw someone drive their truck across the lake I learn something new about the safety of the ice.

If the desire not to drown in icy cold water and the desire to cross the lake both remain active it would seem that I still would not cross the lake just because the situation has changed (and assuming that desires are the only reason for actions).

It seems correct to me that desires are the only reasons for action but I'm less convinced about their persistence or persistent activeness despite changing situations. For example, it doesn't seem that I have a persistent lake crossing desire. (Although, I may have a persistent desire to take the shortest easiest route.)

I do realize that there is a "given their beliefs" aspect to your theory but wouldn't a change in our beliefs constitute a change in situation? And if so, how do beliefs change (if they do at all) which desire is the strongest?

I'd appreciate your thoughts on this as my own have left me confused. Hopefully not so confused as to have bungled the question I'm trying to ask.

Jon Newman

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The aversion to dying an icey death remains the same. What changes is your belief about the likelihood that crossing the lake will result in a state that thwarts your aversion to dying an icey death.

Your aversion to dying an icey death will not prevent you from buying a hot dog at a football game. This is because buying a hotdog at a football game is not likely to lead to such a state.

When you saw the truck drive across the lake, you have reason to conclude that walking across the lake is almost as unlikely to result in your suffering an icey death as buying a hotdog.

Probabilities matter. A high probability of thwarting a weak desire can outweigh a small probability of thwarting a strong desire. Probabilities, however, fall into the realm of beliefs.